By Jean Lotus
Police arrested the owner of the former Velvet Rope Ultra Lounge in Oak Park Friday night and charged him with two counts of arson and one count of insurance fraud, the Village of Oak Park reported.
Frank Elliott, 26, was arrested at another bar he had opened subsequent to the Oak Park fire. The arrest was made at the Bonsai Bar at 3503 N. Halsted St, Chicago.
"I'm not interested in making any comment right now," said Elliottt when reached by phone Monday.
The Velvet Rope, 728 Lake St, was destroyed by fire in the early morning of June 3, 2012 and never reopened. At the time, Elliott said he thought the bar was targeted because it catered to a gay clientele. He said he found anti-gay messages scrawled on the walls inside the burned building and told reporters he believed the fire was a hate crime.
Oak Park fire personnel responded to reports of smoke around 6:30 a.m. The fire was extinguished in minutes, according to David Powers, a spokesman for the village of Oak Park. The Flat Top Grill and Geppetto's Toy Box, two adjacent businesses, also sustained water and fire damage that required them to close for months. No injuries were reported.
As Elliott's narrative that the fire was the result of a hate crime spread, Oak Park, Forest Park and Chicago's gay community offered support for Elliott and Velvet Rope employees. A benefit charging $20 per person was held at the Hideaway Bar in Forest Park.
"The benefit wasn't for Frank," said Hideaway Manager/Bartender Tom Howe. "It was for the four or five employees who were out of work."
"I kind of figured it [was arson] from the beginning," Howe said. He said reaction Saturday night at the Hideaway was, "why did it take so long to charge him?"
"I know it's not like CSI where they figure it out in an hour," he said.
After the blaze, local investigators determined there was probable cause to indicate arson, and state investigators were called in.
Elliott's financial problems were exposed after Ellen Bettenhausen, a previous owner of the establishment and a lender in a 2008 promissory note, sued in August 2012 for breach of contract when Elliott failed to make payments on the note. He was also sued by U.S. Foodservice Inc. a wholesale food vendor for restaurant supply bills that weren't paid.
Eric Masoncup, owner of Geppetto's Toybox, said he was relieved that the case was going to move forward.
"I'm glad there is no longer a mystery as to who would have done such a thing," Masoncup said. "We were shut down for a month."
"The fire put a tremendous amount of strain on my business and my family and me personally trying to make sure we could stay open," Masoncup said. He said insurance paid for repairs and replacement of smoke-damaged inventory and water damage in the basement. But insurance didn't cover missing business for a month.
"Our relationship with our vendors was tested," he added.
The owner of the Lake Street building, Mike Fox, of R.P. Fox and Associates, remodeled the building with insurance money. It has since been rented by Spiro Papageorge, who formerly owned Papaspiros across the street. Papageorge hopes to open a similar Greek restaurant at the location.
Oak Park Police Chief Rick C. Tanksley said investigators worked closely with the Office of Cook County State's Attorney to pursue the case for more than a year.
"This incident was a troubling one for our community, which prides itself on being open and welcoming to all. A hate crime just didn't make sense," Tanksley said in a statement released by village hall.
Elliott was transported to Cook County Criminal Court at 26th and California. Bond was set at $200,000. Elliottt posted ten percent, or $20,000, and was released.
If convicted, Elliott could face up to seven years in prison for each count of arson and 15 years for insurance fraud, in addition to fines of $25,000 or more, Powers said.
Howe of the Hideaway said he was sorry the Velvet Rope burned down.
"It was nice to have a different place you could go that was close," he said. His customers would frequent both establishments, he said. "Most people used to go back and forth. The nearest other place outside Chicago is [Phoenix Nightclub] in Elk Grove Village."
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